When you’re at the Sugar Shack Blueberry Farm you would never know New York is not the leading blueberry-growing state in the nation. (It trails behind Michigan, New Jersey, and several other states). Raising blueberries has been the number-one pursuit of the owners for 20 years at the 55-acre farm at 824 East Swamp Road northwest of Penn Yan in Yates County, where 17,000 bushes cover 28 acres of the sloping farmland.
Mary Pat Pennell, Mary Michalec and Jan Carr, now all retired from careers in the academic world, work year round cultivating blueberries and other fruits such as raspberries and apricots. The women also tap hundreds of the maple trees on the property to make syrup and raise bees for blueberry blossom honey. While 98 percent of their business is from the u-pick operation, pre-picked berries are also sold along with homemade jams, dressings, juice, and blueberry-related merchandise like the classic children’s book, Blueberries for Sal, in an early 19th century barn-turned-shop. They also sell at the farmers market in Penn Yan, and when berries are not in season, they are available frozen at the farm.
But it’s during July and August, the height of the blueberry season, when the Sugar Shack Blueberry Farm comes alive with the arrival of hundreds of people with their containers ready to pick some of the 10 varieties of highbush blueberries grown there. Novice berry pickers and “pros” with years of picking under their belts can get a lift to the bushes in a golf cart or on the custom-made “berry wagon.” “It’s a very social activity. You have people who are neighbors who haven’t seen each other in years that meet out here,” says Michalec, adding, “It’s an amazing socialization process. Kids four years old are sitting next to 90-year-olds.” The secret to their success, says Michalec, is giving everybody the same opportunity for unpicked bushes. “We don’t have them pick after somebody else. We monitor the picking and we teach the kids,” says the teacher-turned-farmer.
Sugar Shack Blueberry Farm represents a long-time dream of an agrarian life for Pennell. “We looked at property until we were blue in the face,” recalls the South Carolina native when relating how the business originated, “and found this one by just taking a ride on a Sunday afternoon.” She and Michalec were teaching at Monroe Community College and Carr was at Nazareth College, so they needed their joint venture to be within commuting distance of Rochester. The first blueberry plants were planted in 1980 and the u-pick business got underway sometime later. “We opened selling a quart or two out by the roadside,” recalls Michalec. “It took a long time before there were enough berries to encourage people to pick.”
Carr is identified as the “mechanical genius” of the group, able to fix just about any piece of farm equipment. Out of necessity they design and fabricate a few pieces of their own. One invention is a mulcher side-delivery system for laying down the mulch on the bushes to eliminate weeds and cut down on the use of herbicides. They also developed a field netter that rolls out netting to cover the berries to deter birds as the berries ripen. (Thousands of birds love blueberries.) “We even find bushes with little nests,” explains Pennell. “That’s a smart mama bird; all she has to do is step outside the nest for breakfast!” says Pennell with bemused respect.
Then there are the picking buckets – another invention – which they say have now caught on at other u-pick operations. Made from a five gallon pail with a portion cut out of the lid, a pail provides both a seat low to the ground and a container in which the berries can be dropped.
The inventiveness of the Sugar Shack partners extends to the development of new products such as their “Blueberry Quencher,” a best-selling juice. Pennell came up with the recipe which she likens to a blueberry lemonade and estimates she made over 400 gallons of the beverage last year. “Quencher was developed with input from our field people,” explains Pennell, referring to seasonal employees who pick berries for the farm’s commercial customers. “We used to keep soda pop for them, but they were tired of that.” Pennell went through four different formulas before hitting on what everyone agreed was the right proportions.
The three business partners are pleased that the health benefits of blueberries are becoming better known. Michalec says, “They’re at the top of the list – the best of all the fruit foods; they have the highest antioxidant power of anything growing that we know of.” According to studies done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, blueberries were ranked number one of 40 different fruits, juices, and vegetables that are high in antioxidants, effective in slowing the aging process and many associated diseases. They are sodium free, low-fat, and full of fiber and Vitamin C.
What doesn’t the public know about blueberries? The women agree it’s the fact that there are so many varieties. Most people just think a blueberry is a blueberry. In fact each variety has a different name, appearance, taste and ripening time. “Berkeley,” a favorite of the Sugar Shack owners and customers alike, is light blue, uniformly round, with a little crown, and a very sweet taste. These local berry experts say some varieties are better for pies; some are sweeter and others more tart. “When you give people a taste of the different varieties, they’re amazed, berries are similar to apples,” explains Michalec.
Then there’s the pleasure they feel when someone enjoys fresh blueberries for the first time. “We have had people who say they hate blueberries and they come to the farm to accompany a spouse or a friend. When they taste a fresh blueberry off a bush, it’s an entirely different experience than what they get in the stores. The berries are sweet – it’s like eating grapes; but they’ve always thought of blueberries as very sour,” says Michalec with the satisfaction of knowing they’ve made a new convert.
“That’s a real education. It’s a sweet fruit when it’s fully ripe.”
If you go to pick, wear sturdy water resistant footwear that will cope with damp, sometimes muddy field conditions.
Picking Hours in July & August are Monday, Friday & Saturday: 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesday & Thursday: 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. Wednesday & Sunday: Closed. Also closed July 4th & Labor Day.
From Geneva: Take Route 5 & 20 West to Kearney Road. Turn left on Kearney Road to town of Gorham. Continue straight on East Swamp Road for five miles.
From Canandaigua: Take Route 5 & 20 East to Kearney Road. Continue as above.
From Penn Yan: Take Route 14A North to Benton Center. Turn left on Havens Corners Road. Continue on Havens Corners Road. Turn right on East Swamp Road.
For more information on the Sugar Shack Blueberry Farm, call 585-526-5442.
We would like to give you a sample of other u-pick farms within the Finger Lakes region. Please contact www.fingerlakes.org or call (800) 548-4386 for more information.
8936 Route 53, Naples
Pick your own produce while looking over the Naples Valley. Seasonal: June & July, 7 a.m. – noon, u-pick strawberries and raspberries, Sept. & Oct., 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., u-pick grapes (14 varieties) and pumpkins.
6450 Shaker Road, Alton
Historic farm offering fun for the entire family. U-pick daily during fall apple harvest. Open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. during apple harvest from Sept. 15 – Oct. 21.
Our Green Acres
3965 Waverly Road, Owego
U-pick strawberries, raspberries – summer beds, fall beds. Vegetables, u-pick peas, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, shell beans, pumpkins up to 250 lbs., Indian corn. June 1 – Oct. 31, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Daniel Hubbard Farm, Vegetable Stand & Greenhouse
86 South Main Street, Avoca
U-pick vegetables – peas, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins and more. Summer hours: Mon. – Fri. 9 a.m. – sunset. Call for other hours.
Apple Barrel Orchards & Hearstrings Gift Shop
2732 Wager Hill Road, Penn Yan
Retail sales room featuring a large variety of apples, cider, cheese, maple syrup, honey, gift baskets and gift packs. Pick your own apples in Sept. and Oct. Open year-round, daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
3581 Yost Road, Waterloo
Specializes in strawberries, asparagus, peas, and vegetables, u-pick or picked for you. Farm store has fresh-baked goods and fresh produce. Open May through Labor Day.
by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett is a correspondent for the Messenger-Post newspapers in Canandaigua. She owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.